As incidents of illegal drone use have tripled — prompting a stern warning from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — a new Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) report shows more than 25 types of business operations have been approved by the FAA to fly unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) commercially in the National Airspace System (NAS).
Meanwhile, federal lawmakers are working on legislation to crack down on rogue and illegal use of drones.
According to the AUVSI report, aerial photography received the most exemptions followed by real estate and aerial surveying. The report also shows exemptions have been approved in 49 states.
“These figures show that businesses across every industry sector have been waiting to use UAS for years and are excited to finally get this technology off the ground,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of AUVSI. “From inspecting bridges and power lines to filming movies and supporting emergency services, the applications of UAS are virtually limitless and enable researchers, public agencies and businesses to do things that were previously considered to be impossible.”
In May 2014, the FAA announced it would consider granting exemptions for certain low-risk commercial UAS applications under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA). Since then, the agency has received more than 2,700 requests and approved more than 1,400 petitions.
Section 333 of the FMRA grants the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certification is required for certain UAS to operate safely in the NAS.
This determination is based on the size, weight, speed and operational capabilities of the aircraft. After the Secretary makes this determination, a petition for exemption undergoes a safety valuation by the FAA to determine what additional conditions and limitations are required for the proposed UAS operation.
Of the first 1,000 exemptions approved by the FAA analyzed by AUVSI, the trade group found:
- Approved exemptions cover more than 25 types of business operations, with aerial photography receiving the most approvals with 512. Real estate followed with 350 exemptions and general aerial surveying with 301 exemptions.
- Exemptions were approved for operators from 49 states. California received the most with 114, followed by Florida with 97 and Texas with 82.
- California companies also manufactured the most platforms mentioned in the approvals, totaling 140. Florida followed with 19. In all, 22 states house manufacturers of platforms approved in the first 1,000 exemptions.
- More than 90 percent of the first 1,000 exemptions were granted to small businesses.
- Companies that received exemptions generate at least $500 billion to the US economy annually and represent more than 600,000 jobs.
“While the Section 333 process has continued to unlock the potential of UAS technology, AUVSI emphasized that regulating by exemption is no substitute for finalized rules,” the organization said in a statement.
“For the full potential of the UAS commercial market to be realized in the US, the FAA needs to finalize its small UAS rule as quickly as possible.” Wynne said. “Once this happens, we will have an established framework for UAS operations allowing anyone who follows the rule to fly. The positive effects of the regulation will be felt across the whole country.”
A final rule for use of UAS in the national airspace undoubtedly will provide penalties for certain uses of these aircraft the FAA deems are dangerous and illegal.
FAA reported last month that, “Pilot reports of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically over the past year, from a total of 238 sightings in all of 2014, to more than 650 by August 9 of this year. The FAA wants to send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal. Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time.
Pilots of a variety of different types of aircraft – including many large, commercial air carriers – reported spotting 16 unmanned aircraft in June of 2014 and 36 in July. At the time of the FAA’s report last month, 138 pilots had reported seeing drones at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet during the month of June, and another 137 in July.
The FAA said it “is working closely with the law enforcement community to identify and investigate unauthorized unmanned aircraft operations. The FAA has levied civil penalties for a number of unauthorized flights in various parts of the country, and hasdozens of open enforcement cases.”
FAA encourages the public to report unauthorized drone operations to local law enforcement and to help discourage this dangerous, illegal activity.